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When a recipe calls for “deglazing with wine,” what does that mean? What wine should a cook use? We did a comparison in cooking classes recently and we were amazed at the results. Better wine really does make a better sauce. When we made steak bordelaise with a $5 cabernet, the sauce was sharp and acidic. But when we used the $33 bottle of pinot noir, the bordelaise sauce was voluptuous — the kind of sauce that calls for licking the plate.

Many recipes call for “dry wine” or some say, “wine you would drink.” Frequently cooks buy the least expensive, but drinkable, wine to use in cooking. A cheap wine is probably fine for a dish that calls for a few tablespoons along with a lot of other ingredients. But when the main purpose of the sauce is the taste of the wine, such as boeuf bourguignon, using a great wine will ensure a great sauce.

The purpose of deglazing with wine is two-fold. Pouring liquid into the fry pan picks up all of the wonderful flavor nuggets from browning the meat that are stuck to the skillet (sorry, nonstick skillets don’t make a good pan sauce). Using a flavorful liquid, such as wine or stock, adds flavor to the sauce. Bring the wine to a boil, which boils off the alcohol, then boil the sauce until it is half or a quarter of the original volume. The wine reduction adds flavor and body to the sauce, because reduced wine is syrupy.

According to John Nash from The Wine Merchant, using a $20 bottle of wine will make a significant difference over a $5 bottle. But, a $50 bottle is not better than the $20 bottle. In fact, some of the prized characteristics in a wine for drinking, such as a strong oak flavor, are just not good in a sauce.

Try the same test at home with this recipe; but please don’t waste a good steak on “cooking wine,” which is very salty.

Steak Bordelaise

  • 4 large shallots, finely minced
  • 4 boneless steaks, cut about 3/4 inch thick (such as strip steak)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup (4 ounces) cold butter, cut into cubes, divided
  • 1 1/2 cups fruity red wine (such as a Bordeaux or Merlot)
  • Salt and pepper as needed to taste

Season steaks with salt and pepper to taste. Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a large heavy frying pan. Lightly cook shallots for about a minute, remove from the pan and set aside. Heat another 1 tablespoon of butter and the oil, add the steaks and fry over high heat until browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Turn and brown the other side, 1 to 2 minutes for rare steak, and 2 to 3 minutes for pink meat. When pressed with your fingertip, steaks should be firm around the edge and still soft in the center. Set them aside. For the sauce, add wine to the same frying pan and boil until reduced to about 2 tablespoons of glaze, stirring to dissolve pan juices, for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the remaining 3 ounces of cold butter, a few pieces at time. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper. Set steaks on 4 warm plates. Spoon sauce over steaks; scatter the chopped shallots on top and serve.